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Earlier this year, I had the chance to visit with Soledad O’Brien, former anchor for CNN and NBC, business owner and, most recently, co-host with Jean Chatzky of a new radio and podcast program from Edelman Financial Engines called Everyday Wealth. The show addresses the crossroads of financial decisions and their effects on our lives. It promises conversations on the personal-finance topics that matter most, according to a pre-launch announcement: longevity, retirement security, exponential technologies, digital assets, and health and wellness.
After her tenure at CNN and NBC, O’Brien launched a production company in Manhattan, Soledad O’Brien Productions (SO’B), to create documentaries.
Here are O’Brien’s five most important pieces of advice for entrepreneurs.
1. During a crisis, money and values should remain intertwined
O’Brien: Someone gave me some helpful advice during Hurricane Katrina. “When emergencies happen, let your values lead.” That means the main thing to worry about is, “What do you believe in?” That’s what we did [when the pandemic struck]. We put our people first and told everybody, “We’re not going to fire anybody.” We have no idea what’s going to happen. Our offices have been mostly closed for the past two years. When you’re paying the price for New York real estate, it’s staggering, but we put our employees first, and I feel really good about that. Thankfully, at this point, we’ve gotten busier than ever, and we’re churning out a ton of work. We made sure that everybody working was safe. We kept them employed and made sure their concerns and anxieties were addressed and acknowledged.
2. The right time to become an entrepreneur is earlier than you think. Prepare now.
O’Brien: I think we sometimes think entrepreneurship is an older person’s discussion. In my case, I started having that discussion when I was 48, but I should have had that conversation many years prior. I was 40 when I left CNN with a giant desire to start a production company, but I had no real plan. I was lucky. I’d been well compensated. I had amazing people who ran production companies reaching out to help me in every way. We were profitable right away, but it was a steep learning curve. The first year and a half was very challenging. My biggest advice is that if you want to be an entrepreneur, make the plans and start the conversations much sooner. How do you plan to fund it? How do you leverage the money you make for the life you want to lead? You should put much more focus on these big conversations much earlier than we traditionally do.
3. You’ll know you’re leading your business well when you know when to say “No”
O’Brien: I think when you start out, you’re so interested in finding business, you say yes to everything, and that can take up far too much of your resources and time. One of the most beautiful things about being an entrepreneur is that you get to pick who you work with. So, take advantage of that and really work through the process of figuring out “What do I really want to do?” This is a challenge with many early-stage ventures. Someone said this to me, and I’ve found it to be really true: “You’ll know you’re leading your business well when you understand what to say ‘no’ to.”
4. Some of the biggest issues around money right now are potentially not the ones you would think
O’Brien: I’ve become really interested in educating people about financial-planning issues because of the things I’ve seen and learned. For example, my parents passed away before Covid. They were both foreigners to this country, with six children. They put us all through college, some through medical school and some through law school. They bought a home, and they saved for retirement. But I didn’t realize until far too late that they hadn’t really thought about or talked about end of life. They ended up in apartments where you couldn’t have a nurse’s aide…I won’t take all the blame because I have five siblings, but they were like “We’ve got it handled,” and they really didn’t have it handled.
Early on is the time to have the very specific and hard conversations about “What is the financial plan?” “Where are you going to live, literally, specifically and tangibly?” “How do you see this unfolding?” I regret a lot of that because it was challenging and stressful and often very messy — issues such as if you need a nurse’s assistant for overnight care, where will that person stay? It’s also about getting onto the parent’s bank accounts to assist with functions such as paying their bills — when people get overwhelmed, they may simply stop paying their bills.
5. The guiding principle on wealth is that it pertains to far more than just money
O’Brien: Wealth is not just money. It is more than that — it’s about the values, goals and dreams we have for our lives. It’s a visceral connection to financial stability and to the money requirements of what people really want to be doing.
O’Brien’s final point, in particular, leads to a spectrum of additional issues and answers. But right now, she says, is the time to pull back the curtain and let the conversations begin.